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Can People Change Their Minds?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Getty Images: Christopher Furlong
*Updated 2020
Throughout the past two decades, the American public has gravitated toward opposite political poles. A Pew poll showed that record numbers of Americans have deemed their ideological counterparts “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” The personalization of our newsfeeds has decreased interaction with opposing viewpoints, and when exchanges do happen, they are increasingly ineffective. Today, 91% of Americans feel the country is polarized. And the political, racial and cultural divisions keep getting starker; even responses to the current health crisis have become politically tinged and divided.
In such a divisive atmosphere, is idea-exchange even worthwhile anymore? Can people really change their minds? Below, we’ll explore three reasons why we can, and three reasons why not.


Can people change their minds? Yes.


Change is common.

So, can people change their minds? You bet! In fact, the notion that people do not change their minds contradicts what we readily observe about the human experience. Many people who have eaten meat their whole lives have become vegetarians. People change religions or take one up after a lifetime of atheism. They change political parties, too; people tend to become more conservative with age (and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a Republican, Independent and a Democrat, including even a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate). There is no thought system in existence, no matter how deeply entrenched, that cannot ultimately be undone.


Win bees with honey, not vinegar.

Positivity can go a long way in changing people’s minds.  A review of Reddit’s ChangeMyMind forum revealed that people who remained polite and practiced hedging – a linguistic tool used to make an argument appear less threatening (“it may be that”)  – succeeded more often in changing people’s minds. Another study determined that people are more likely to change their minds when they feel good about themselves. People who had practiced positive self-affirmation before entering an argument were more influenced by the argument than those who had only argued, without the benefit of the self-affirmation activity. Positivity opens the door to a flexible mind.


Change is a process.

Change, in both behavior and thought, is often not the result of one brilliant counterargument, but a process that develops slowly over time. Science writer, Jennifer Oullette, likens changing one’s mind to phase transitions – the point at which a substance transforms from one state of matter (like liquid) to another (like gas). Liquid water can sit on an open flame for what seems like ages before the water turns to steam. Those expecting their opponent to announce a reversal of their opinion midstream would do well to remember that a watched pot never boils. Look at American food companies in the days after the George Floyd race protests. It has taken decades (if not longer) for brands like Uncle Ben’s Rice, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth and Cream of Wheat to take a stand against and change the use of African-American stereotypes in their marketing of food products. It may take time, but change can come.


No, minds can’t be changed.


We’re programmed to resist changes of heart.

Evolution has programmed humans to resist changing our minds. Our survival hinges on our ability to cooperate with each other. The earliest humans increased their ability to cooperate by forming bonds based on shared ideas and beliefs, just like today. Our beliefs are a pronouncement of loyalty and identity. When we declare loyalty, we increase our safety in two ways: First, by showing we are part of a large group that is not easy to threaten, and second, by increasing the likelihood that we will receive support from that group. As such, our propensity to lean somewhat blindly toward the beliefs of our group of collaborators (and reject the beliefs of others) is part of the evolutionary hardwiring that has helped us to survive.


Facts fail.

Countless studies have revealed the discouraging truth that people don’t often allow facts to intervene in their worldview. This is because belief and opinion are often tied to identity. For example, Christians organize their ethics and actions around the teachings of Jesus. So, when someone challenges a core Christian belief (how did Jesus walk on water?), they are not just challenging an idea, but the foundation upon which a person has built her life. Given that views and identity are linked on the major issues (which differ from one person to another), it is unsurprising that many people will double-down on a certain belief when a fact challenges their worldview. For example, white nationalists, eager to prove their Aryan bona fides, have started utilizing genetic testing services to verify their “whiteness.”  When their results show that their ancestry is not exclusively white, instead of abandoning their belief in their whiteness (and in white superiority), they question the validity of the tests.


First impressions count the most.

People tend to conform to the ideas they learned as children, not only because of the feelings of security generated at home, but also because first impressions make stronger imprints on the brain than those that follow. Studies have found that a first impression, once formed, is hard to undo. This is especially true if a subject or person is first presented to you in a negative light. For example, one study that appeared in Social Cognition showed that people who observed someone who had made a bad first impression were slow to believe she had changed for the better, even after weeks of seeing her perform kind acts.


The Bottom Line: People’s natural and social impulses guide them away from change as much as they steer them toward it. What do you think? Are we hopelessly set in our ways, or always free to break into new mindsets? What do you think? Can people change their minds?


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